There seems to be a common story told by the women in my network: “I am struggling to know what to do first—my kids, my career, my parents—I am torn in every direction, it feels like the pressure never stops and I feel like I am constantly running out of time.”
We seem to face increased stress—we worry about money, work, kids, parents, health, relationships—and the state of the world does not alleviate the pressure. The “sandwich” generation was originally coined by Dorothy Miller and Elaine Brody in 1981 to describe women in their 30s to 40s who were “sandwiched” between young children and aging parents as their primary caregiver. Now it encompasses both men and women from their 30s to their 60s who, in addition to being responsible for looking after their young (or not quite independent) children, find themselves caring for aging parents and grandparents. Roughly 15 percent of today’s population in the Western world is juggling career and caregiver duties, and while men as well as women feel these stresses, women are disproportionately impacted, as they account for 75 percent of caregivers.
And no matter how “resilient,” how “successful,” how “well prepared” you think you are, life happens.
In 2019, my world was shattered when one of my closest family members unexpectedly died. Like me, he was in his 40s and, like me, we had both faced our share of challenges in life—fleeing East Germany before the fall of the wall, settling into a culture that wasn’t ours, trying to “fit in” to the point where we sometimes lost track of our identity. We had worked hard, helped others, lived life.
Grief, I have come to learn, can hit you in the most unexpected ways. It can be all-consuming at times. It can open wounds you didn’t know you had. It can also, as I experienced, be a gift—a moment where you are stopped abruptly in your tracks to deal with yourself and your loved ones at an emotional level you may have never gone to before. Clayton Christensen’s “How Will You Measure Your Life” or Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” both of which I had shared countless times over the years, all of a sudden had a different, more personal, more painful meaning.
One way we can support each other through life’s challenges is by openly acknowledging them.
In 2015, having just returned to work from my second parental leave, a colleague asked me how my husband was dealing with having two children. Little did they know that we were in the middle of a divorce. My first instinct was to hide it—the shame I felt at having “failed” was bigger than my desire to be authentic and honest. It took me only a couple of days to realize that telling my story would not only help me, it could change the workplace culture by creating a more open, more human approach when trying to consolidate my now-integrated work and life. And, as an unintended consequence, colleagues around me started sharing their challenges more openly and felt more understood and supported in the coming months. At my current employer, we even created a series of Courageous Conversations, open to all employees, to share, or listen, in an open forum for exchange.
Workplace conversations and cultures are slowly changing as employees at all levels are feeling the pressures of life.
We need to talk about Gianpiero Petriglieri and Sally Maitlis’ touching and insightful HBR piece “When a Colleague Is Grieving” and think about how we can help colleagues deal with life’s challenges without having to also worry about their careers. As leaders in the workplace, we all have a responsibility to ensure that we use our position of privilege to support and encourage those whose voices have been ignored, or silenced, or discouraged. We need to ask ourselves if we are holding ourselves and others accountable to leading inclusively by:
- Being aware of, and addressing, the challenges faced by the intersectional diversity in our organizations, like women of color
- Questioning the status quo to bring about change, despite its being uncomfortable
- Creating a safe space in our organizations to have courageous conversations which, while they may make us feel vulnerable and exposed, could allow someone else to step out of their feelings of isolation and shame
As RRA has documented in recent research, leading like this has a multitude of positive effects on executives and teams, including increased employee loyalty, enhanced team collaboration and better team decision-making.
So today, like any other day, be kind. Reach out. Encourage. Support. Sponsor. And reflect on Mary Oliver’s most famous line:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”